Woman loses public liability claim for back injury

Date: Sep 30, 2015

The NSW Supreme Court has dismissed a public liability claim from a woman who alleged she suffered a severe back injury on a flight from Sydney to Malta.

According to the plaintiff, the accident occurred when a flight attendant spilled hot tea on her after getting distracted by another passenger. The pain caused her to twist out of her seat and onto the lap of her husband, who was sitting beside her.

After receiving treatment for burns and changing her trousers, the woman began to feel pain in her lower back. She claimed she then lay on the floor of the aircraft's first class section and performed stretches to help ease her discomfort.

The plaintiff said her injury was so severe that it can be considered a permanent disability, preventing her from performing everyday cleaning tasks and requiring significant time off work.

Her husband corroborated the story, adding that he stops her from doing even simple tasks, such as vacuuming, cutting vegetables and lifting cooking pots. 

The incident occurred on the Sydney-Dubai leg of the woman's journey to Malta, and she went to see a doctor five days after arriving at her destination.

Public liability claim decision

The Civil Liability Act protects people who suffer serious injuries due to the negligence of individuals or organisations. Victims can receive substantial compensation if they prove the defendant breached their duty of care to the public.

However, the judge ruled the woman in this particular case failed to adequately verify the legitimacy of her claim. Justice Helen Wilson said the plaintiff's story did not appear to align with other evidence, stating that her version of events had "an air of unreality".

Justice Wilson noted that the incident report written after the accident didn't mention the woman's back injury and both the plaintiff and her husband contradicted themselves when giving evidence.

The judge also drew attention to the fact the woman neglected to visit a medical practitioner for several days after the accident, despite later describing the pain as agonising.

"The detail of significant events, such as how she fell after being splashed with tea, shifted under cross-examination like sands under the force of a strong current," Justice Wilson added.

Significantly, the woman also had a history of debilitating back pain before the incident, resulting in frequent trips to the doctor and an inconsistent employment history. The judge therefore ruled in favour of the defendant.

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